I recently met with Fia in her Brooklyn Studio. She had just shipped
her works to Stockholm for an upcoming show, I had just finished a
long, rugged dispute with a print shop in Long Island City. We enjoyed
peppermint tea and cookies discussing our notions of art and the
Bartek Kraciuk: Hey, Fia, so what do you think about making art?
Fia Backström: It is a space where you don’t have to be productive like
the rest of the society, who are expected to be profitable or
productive in some way to fit into some wheel of production. Art is a
space where those things are temporarily set out of order. And even
work of an artist like Jeff Koons, which may look incredibly profitable
on the surface but he just uses those modalities to ask questions, to
try things out. It isn’t really that productive in the society. People
who make commodities in the art world don’t really make real
commodities. You can’t compare it to an apple computer or something
like this because the scale is so different. Even if they earn a lot of
money it’s still not going to be up there with the big corporations to
BK: I don’t think objects are where art is.
FB: But it could be in the object too, don’t you think so? Or do you
think that art is another kind of spirit?
BK: I don’t know about spirit I don’t think it’s alive, I think it’s
completely dead. But I do think it is independent from the object. The
object is this product that is a tangible token that says, “this is art
and this is what it looks like”.Maybe it is for the same reason that
people buy religious paintings and statues because they cannot see God
but then they have the object, which brings them closer to it.
FB: Catholic religion is based in this right, yet it is also based in a
lot of ritual, so it’s performance art simultaneously...
BK: Yes, but God is not in celebrating Christmas, God is not in the
wooden figure of Jesus Christ you can hang above your door or. It is
somewhere else. And same with art. You can have your object on the wall
and it will remind you of art and it could help you evoke the art but I
don’t think the object is where the art is.
FB: I think it could be both. Now I remember; last time you said an art
object was a commodity, which - when it came to the home of the
collector - lost its true value and was just a memory or a
documentation. But it also becomes an altar. It is a way of recombining
and reconnecting things and making them yours. I wouldn’t cancel out
the art object and equal it to a waste product, because it’s very hard
to make good art objects that carry reasons for existing. There are
most certainly art objects that work viscerally and strongly in
themselves, that could not have worked in any other way. If the art
object is closed out or unnecessary, then why even bother with it at
BK: I don’t know why make them. On the one hand what I would rather do
is have a conversation about a certain idea instead of producing it, on
the other hand it is the conversation that is the product. It’s just
not tangible - but it is in words. So maybe art is inseparable from the
object then? Either way, why make the object?
FB: It s hard because one enters into art with certain ideas, most of
the time very romantic ideas about what it is and about what one wants
to do with it. That it is special and free. And all of the sudden one
realizes there is this big business going around the block here and so
far it is not all that different from the rest of the society or
actually maybe functioning more professional than a lot of other
business realms. I still believe that there is that possibility of
rupture or job to be done. It is also a part real - part fictional
space, so it can be used as a model for discussion about all different
kinds of things. The rules can be invented anew every time
BK: Right, the rules. I think if everyone were an artist it would be an
apocalypse because the society would completely fall apart. Or maybe it
would be a great success of anarchy? I doubt it. Because the entire
structure would collapse if rules could be reinvented each time and
everybody was completely disobedient.
FB: But remember that when everybody is completely disobedient and
everybody always breaks the rule it becomes the new rule and that
becomes very predictable too.
BK: But if the postman who just picked up your packages was an artist
and sent them somewhere else as his performance it wouldn’t be
convenient. I myself did something like this and I thought it was a
very poetic gesture but I know some of the people weren’t happy. So we
don’t want him to be an artist.
FB: Hrmm, I guess we could allow him to be an artist in his free time
but not at work. Otherwise it would be horrible. For many of the
avant-garde movements in the early 20th century the goal was to abolish
the artist, they wanted to create this incredible utopian society
designed by the artists. Once it was achieved, there would be no need
for the artist to exist anymore. The job would have been accomplished.
BK: Is that a way to get rid of artists then?
FB: When you set up a certain role or a job for an artist, like the
idea of the political that you are going to transform the society with
your art, once you are in the utopian state, the perfect state of the
society, then you don’t need to be working anymore, you’re services are
no longer needed. Simple as that.
BK: I think the reason why art is not dangerous to the society is that
art is not real. If we had this utopian society with no artists and
then there were an artist who made his anti-utopian art then it would
remain at the level of abstract intellectual discussion. But if the guy
were not an artist but an activist, a politician, who actually wants to
take over and change the state of he wouldn’t care about the abstract
intellectual dispute and that would be a threat. So I think what makes
art safe for us is that it is not real.
FB: This is a great comment because then this idea of the job of art as
a transformer of the society is only in fantasy or A fantasy. Yes, just
look at Hitler and all the rest who wanted to become artists, but who
changed paths into the more, let’s say executive modality. Many believe
in the transformative role for art in regards to society. Its
transformative power lies elsewhere. You question the use of art, but
what is the use of political art?I don’t believe that the mission of
art is to change society. It’s works more like a model. We build little
models and we try things out and we can sit and speculate. It is more
like theoretical physics.
BK: What about making a change within the artworld? You don’t think
someone's art can make a change in the artworld?
FB: If you make a proposal that is strong enough people are going to
have to take it into consideration, that can generate a change. It
might be a change in other artists practices, rather than an overthrow
of all the worlds injustices...
BK: So you can be a leader, an activist in the art world.
FB: But I want to ask one thing, what is political art? What is the
BK: I don’t like to use the word political, neither engaged, activist…
FB: Also what is political art good for
BK: I don’t know if it is any good. Isn’t your audience always going to
be the people who are interested in the subject anyway? In other words,
good political work would be speaking to the viewer on such abstract
and sophisticated terms that an average person would never be
influenced by it. They wouldn’t understand it. You know somebody who is
not studying art…
FB: The images you were using in our seminar looked political, but they
were so in another way than the looks. So it is about that trick of
operativeness. Like Kelley Walker’s pictures where he is taking the
images from the race riots in the 60’s that look very political
choosing ones from the same shot as Andy Warhol did. So in turn, you
feel insecure if whether it’s an image of the race riots by itself or
an image of an Andy Warhol piece, or what the heck is going on. What is
source, influence and so on. On top of it the screen is splattered
chocolate. So we are tricked because we may think that the political is
in the race riots, whereas it is the way that the image is ruptured and
- through the chocolate – relocated.
BK: I think the problem with a lot of socially engaged art is that it
often becomes very literal because you want to emphasize the very
important subject that you are talking about. The subject might be
important but the way you speak about it can’t be too obvious, too
simple and too much in your face, because then it leaves no space for
dispute, and there is nothing left for an interaction. You could just
as well write the words on a transparent and go protest it. So then we
get again to that point where the only people who are going to be able
to read the well done political art are going to be people who are
probably already thinking about that stuff. And what is that going to
FB: I don’t agree. It’s like theoretical physics, which works very well
on a science fiction level that everyone can read and on a
sophisticated level of discourse as well. I think great art has that
capacity as well. It is approachable for both the dilettantes and the
professionals. You ask what it is going to change, but what is it
supposed to change?
BK: What is the point of making activist art if you don’t want to
FB: I hate that word activist art because that feels so illustrative.
BK: Let’s find a new word for it
FB: Unsanitary structure reshuffling. Work that reshuffles structures.
BK: Structures of society or structures in general?
FB: Any structure.
BK: I think most of the work today reshuffles some kind of a structure.
It is based in the reality, especially the media reality and it does
borrow from it so much, we don’t call anything “appropriation” anymore.
It is just obvious that you borrow from everything that surrounds you.
Isn’t that reshuffling already?
FB: Ok, reshuffling is not a good term. Disrupting the structures then.
When you make the structures be insecure, so they can fall, like a card
house. If you take out the one at the bottom the structure gets stirred
and becomes problematic. That’s what I would think…
BK: So disruptive art? I like it. I like disruptive art.
FB: So is successful art, art that can change the most around it?
BK: I think successful art changes a lot.
FB: Within the art but not the society. It did not change the society,
even with the faith that art has the power to change it.
BK: Right, but as we said before, that is not true. It has that power
within its own realm. In the artworld you can make a change, you can
start a revolution, you can do whatever you want but only within that
world, you aren’t going change the butcher’s life in any way – unless
he is an artist.
FB: It’s too focused on the individual, like on Andy Warhol. I think of
art being like a braid of discussion threads that go on and on parallel
to each other until, all of a sudden, somebody or many or something
contributes to the discussion in a way that affects all other
discussions and people cannot close their eyes to it. They have to take
it into consideration and cannot continue in the same way as they did
BK: So that’s the disruptive art! But then again, it only affects the
people who are thinking of something similar or working in similar
FB: Now that’s interesting because when the Twin Towers went down there
was clearly a before and after, but the after seemed almost the same as
the before, at least in the art world.
BK: What kind of change would you expect?
FB: Activist stuff. That’s what I expected then. But now, in
retrospective, I think that wasn’t really an available option. It isn’t
a real option because it builds on the naïve notion that art can be
reality and go out and make a change, when it is rather fiction, an
imitation, or a parallel universe.
BK: So art will not change anything, will not change the world?
FB: You think so?
BK: I don’t think it will.
FB: I don’t think anybody cares about art.
BK: I don’t think so either. But going back to the religious figure,
how come those religious statues do have significance for people who
believe, and do help them in some way to either connect with God, or
remind them that they are believers. And what about activist art? Why
is that not a way to remind someone, to spark something?
FB: I don’t really know what activist art is. I think it is a kind of
seventies way of behaving. Activist art is something that would have an
effect in reality and I don’t think it has one. Maybe activist art is
contemporary religion, just another faith? That’s really nice,
actually. Let’s pray…
BK: But from a butcher’s perspective, who is not an artist, what is the
point of making art?
FB: I have this romantic notion that it comes from an inner necessity,
if you have to do it you are going to. It’s compulsion.
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Bartek Kraciuk is a freelance writer in New York.